Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Insert Requisite Yeats Quote Here
(NOTE: *Spoiler alert in seventh paragraph.*)
No County For Old Men is shockingly heavy for a Hollywood production. Usually, Tinseltown deals with issues of right and wrong, good versus evil, with all the dexterity of a three year old wielding a blowtorch. In fact, the entire industry seems run by increasingly short-distanced thinkers trying to pass off undersized ruminations on sex, football, the flag, and the occasional misbehaving businessman as Big Ideas.
But directors Joel and Ethan Coen thankfully prove themselves up to the task of creating a film that, for all its violence, serves as an unusually multi-layered morality tale – nerve jarring, hauntingly beautiful and, yes, cautionary. Although flashes of their signature deep black humor serve on occasion as relief from the persistent violence, the movie is not a satire nor does it ever for one moment sink into tongue-in-cheekery.
The soundtrack alone clues us into the fact that the Coens are dead serious about their topic. You won’t hear swelling strings or screeching horns (much less one single inappropriately interjected pop song). Instead, about the only accompaniment to the action other than dialogue are the staccato bursts of gunfire, the desperate gasps of men facing death, the stealthy crunch of truck tires along a lonesome gravel road, and the animalistic howl of the relentless, ever-present wind.
The Coens have also managed to coax some of the year’s most inspired performances out of their actors: Tommy Lee Jones doing what he does best; Josh Brolin's revelatory balance of intense physicality and spare emotion; and Javier Bardem, who gamely sports one of the weirdest hairdos known to modern filmdom yet nonetheless manages to create a walking personification of evil so bone deep chilling it’s right up there with Peter Lorrie in M. Kudos as well to the always welcome Woody Harrelson (please, work more), and to the Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald who dons a Texan accents as easily as sipping a glass of water.
Then there’s the landscape itself. The movie opens with the vision of a west Texas so stark and bleached-out, it can only be meant for tragedy. We meet that tragedy soon enough, precipitated by a middle of nowhere drug deal gone wrong and the theft of its cache of millions by a discontented, nothing-to-lose welder (Brolin). Into the mix is thrown Tom Bell (Jones) the stalwart long-time sheriff who is nonetheless still capable of incredulity in the face of violence. At one point in the movie, after reading a newspaper account of a couple who not only rob their neighbors, but then torture them to death and bury them in the backyard, he asks his deputy, “Who ARE these people?”
Denizens of some formless nihilistic milieu that escapes everyday understanding? Or, as a minor character describes later on, part and parcel of an ever-present, ever-shifting tidal wave of havoc and horror?
* Either way, we're introduced to one of these denizens soon enough, a killer-for-hire named Anton Chigurh (Bardem) who possesses a near supernatural, Terminator-like unstoppability and an offhand tendency to decide his victims’ fate with the toss of a coin. When one of them refuses to make the call, saying a coin toss is no way to decide if one lives or dies, the killer will just have to decide, Chigurh shrugs and says, “But I got here the same way the coin did.” *
Indeed. Although Chigurh has been sent to recover the stolen cache, profit, another character tells us, is not his goal. Instead, he operates off not just a peculiar, but a wholly unfathomable set of motives.
If then, as the story suggests, evil is relentless, purposeless, and as haphazard as the toss of a coin, and good is the conscious decision to try and stop it, one hand crossing its fingers, the other on the butt of a gun, then what of those who reside in the gray spaces in between? Well, let’s just say, you don’t dance with the devil in the pale moonlight and then not return his calls the next day.
If there’s any relief at all, it comes in the moments that make up the movie’s ending. Yes, contrary to the bitching and moaning of about half the theater after the lights come up, this movie does have one. Listen for it. You’ll hear in its final words a message that almost wipes the entire bloody slate clean.